February 1, 2010

Natural Economics – St. Brigid vs. the Convenience Store.

I am not suggesting that we go back to a lifestyle of cottages and cows (although I wouldn’t mind), but we have moved dangerously far from our food source—and those who know their history know that can spell the extinction of a culture. ~ JT.


Cattle in County Sligo, Ireland

Today is St. Brigid’s Day in Ireland.

Before it became St. Brigid’s Day it was Imbolc, a holy day sacred to the goddess Brigid who is associated with fire, healing and holy wells (of which there are hundreds in Ireland.) As the first day of spring in the ancient Celtic calendar, this is the day of farmers and cattle. A day to keep a sharp eye out for the weather, to sniff the wind and to know when to plant, as well as a day to drink good strong ale. On this day farmers watched animals including the hedge-hog for signs of spring , this later became ground hog day in North America.

For Irish country people Brigid was (is?) basically, the goddess of economics. The word economics comes from the Greek word for the household. As ecology is the study of the household, economy is the management of the household. Brigid is the the goddess of the milk cow, the oat cake and the peat fire on the hearth.  Irish country life changed little over thousands years until the English brought the Industrial Revolution to Ireland along with the dynamics of subjugation and servitude. The limited control of the land (the source of all wealth) along with limited food sources (monoculture) resulted in a crash of the Irish economy, the deaths of more than one million people and massive emigration.

Thus, I myself, along with 34.5 million Americans (9 times the population of present day Ireland) identify at least part of my ancestry as “Irish.” We came here for economic reasons, as the song Green Fields of Amerikay says “Oh but I mind the time when old Ireland was flourishing and most of her tradesmen did work for good pay, but since our manufacturers have crossed the Atlantic, it’s now I must follow unto Amerikay.”

This brings us to the discussion of the present state of our economy. When electronics manufacturer Celestica closed it’s doors here in Fort Collins hundreds of jobs crossed the ocean, never to return. But what do we do now, move to India? Or is this where we take control of our own destiny and create sustainble local economies that secure our region’s most basic necessities, such as food.

I am basically a capitalist, meaning that in principle, I believe that a free market economy encourages innovation and motivation. At the same time allowing a few individuals to exploit the common good and compromise the ability of others to live a decent existence “the pursuit of happiness” seems to dominate the system, to the detriment of the lives of millions of people.

It amazes me that we have destroyed ecosystems, fought over and consumed vast amounts of resources, created a system of social inequality, caused enormously expensive environmental problems and gone broke in the process! Our current system turns resources into trash at a rapidly accelerating pace. storyofstuff.com

At the beginning of the recession I wondered if this was a heart attack or a cold. When you have a cold you want to get well quickly so you can go back to what you were doing. When you have a heart attack you have to change your life-style, change your diet, exercise and reduce stress, or you increase your risk of death. To simply say we need to get the economy going again would be missing the opportunity for real and positive change. Barrack Obama to his credit has consistently linked economic recovery with green jobs and sustainable growth.

One person who really gets the connection between food and social justice is Will Allen, the Executive Director and founder of growingpower.org Growing Power’s home base in Milwaukee lies within a “food desert”an urban neighborhood where liquor stores and convenience stores, selling high calorie – low nutrition food, proliferate but super markets are non-existent. Allen’s vision is that in the future food will be grown everywhere, in urban window boxes, on rooftops and in vacant lots. In simple economically built greenhouses Growing Power raises tons of vegetables and fish in aquaponic tanks, providing nutritious food directly to the people that need it the most. Best of all they are empowering others to do the same in their own communities. The lack of food choices in many neighborhoods is the direct link between poverty and the epidemic of childhood obesity. Many children are consuming high fructose corn syrup as the main ingredient in their diet.

Next month I am going to visit Growing Power. What am I going to do there? As a middle-aged white guy and a Harvard educated horticulturist, I am going to humbly listen and learn, about racism in the food-chain and how a new generation of culturally diverse, rural and inner city farmers are taking control of the issues of food security at the grassroots level.

Back at the High Plains Environmental Center we will be implementing all that we learn at Growing Power to build a greenhouse that grows fish and vegetables year-round. Along with that we will continue to field grow 13,000 lbs of food which we will donate to the Loveland Food Bank for the second year in a row. And for the second year in a row we will be a drop off site in our community for Grant Farms grantfarms.com a local CSA.

I am not suggesting that we go back to a lifestyle of cottages and cows (although I wouldn’t mind) but we have moved dangerously far from our food source and those who know their history know that can spell the extinction of a culture. It may sound absurd to think that the growing urban population (4.2 million people) of Colorado’s arid Front Range could meet all of it’s own food requirements. However, consider this, covering over 39 million acres, turf grass is America’s single largest crop and billions of gallons of water are used each year to water lawns in Fort Collins alone. If simple and economical technologies such as those used at Growing Power were utilized and precious water resources were diverted to food production (where they should be) there is no telling what could be accomplished. foodnotlawns.net

During the Great Depression people fell back on their agrarian roots and grew gardens. Today there are many people who do not have the basic skills to grow a garden. At HPEC our garden is funded through a grant from Live Well Colorado. As part of the grant our gardener, Susan Singley, will go out into the local community and help others create gardens of their own.

So, crack open the seed catalogs and pour yourself a local micro-brew. And if you’re so inclined leave a slice freshly buttered bread outside your window for Brigid and a sheaf of corn for her red-eared cow in case she comes by to bless your home tonight, goodness we could all use it.

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